INTERVIEW: Tyson Ritter Of The All-American Rejects Comes Clean
He says it in the new ad for his humanitarian venture with Valiant Watches. A quarter of the money made from each watch goes to his charity "Don't Hate On Haiti." The group hands money over to charity:water, a global organization dedicated providing potable H20 to developing nations. The watch design is called BE.REAL, and they're red, blue and white.
It's a catchy quip for an ad, but it's not ironic in a strict literary sense. The irony is that this man, who has stated his devotion in mind and body to the hands-on, immediate payoff of rock music performance, is striving to be a constructive part of something long-lasting.
Slavoj Žižek suggests that tying economic decisions to moral virtue, as Valiant has done, is typical of modern liberal economics. That is to say, believing that buying something like a watch, a pair of Tom's shoes or a chicken sandwich can be good for you in an ethical sense is a relatively new phenomena.
Žižek claims that this is symptomatic of a critical flaw in society's political and economic structure. Ritter said it was cool to see his name on the side of a well.
When asked about his inclination for playing music, Ritter waxes nostalgic for moments in the garage, jamming on the bass while singing Beatles songs. All the bigger stuff, such as his group's 16 years of flash-bulb caliber success, he lumps in the category of "surreal."
He refers to fronting the All-American Rejects as the only job he can handle: "The thing I know how to do," he said, "I don't know how I feel about anything right now, man. I've been doing the same thing for ten years, and this is the only thing I know."
"There's nothing to process. Just keep going. I'll think about it when I'm old and I'm wearing my band t-shirts and I finally hang up my platinum records."
Yet he clearly yearns to do something with lasting importance. Ritter claims his recent activity is the result of a "quarter-life crisis," saying that parting ways with his girlfriend/"muse" of six years forced him to wholly reconsider his motivations and the foundations of his existence.
In addition to the charity project, the newest Rejects' single is "Heartbeat Slowing Down." It's a song Ritter won't stop referring to as "the best song this band's written," and "the most ambitious thing we've ever done."
That statement may be cause for consternation, since the song's about basically the same thing as "Swing Swing," their first hit from the beginning of 2002 — breaking up is hard to do. The story's the same, but in terms of style they've advanced beyond their years spent producing unadulterated pop-punk junk.
"Heartbeat" has a hearty belt of modern production in its gut, like the "Euro dance, totally heavy dance" sound that Ritter said defines contemporary mainstream music. He happily suggest that Mika's vocal on the track makes it greater, compounding the efforts of producer Greg Wells.
"Artists have more freedom than ever before," he said, with a clear-cut resoluteness that suggests he really believes it. "The way music's gone in the last five years has been really remarkable."
"Off-the-beaten-path music — there's so much of it, it's awesome," Ritter said. "Now it seems like you have to find the music you love. Which is, I think, very cool."
The Rejects' most recent album, "Kids in the Street," is full of lyrics talking about the same things as all their other work, e.g. girls and women and other cliché bar band foci. But their musical influences are branched out, albeit straying little from a safety net of airplay established groups. Veins of Weezer and U2 have definitely been opened up, and "Gonzo" owes a surprising debt to Radiohead.
"The 90s are comin' back hardcore," Ritter said. "History repeats itself. Shit, I'm sure we'll have a second grunge."
The songs are clearly written for his audience in the here and now — "Walk Over Me" tries for the Queen thing that could kill on the road, whereas "I For You" is nothing but coffee-shop ready pop. But Ritter may stand to be more than a pretty face bubbling around on the charts.
He could be a lion for acting based on what feels right, be that via a charitable organization or a slick producer. After all, simply giving deference to feelings is all their songs have ever been about.
Full Q & A:
What's your fan base like on this current tour?
I think we every record we make new fans, and being the we're a band that gets played on pop radio primarily, those fans are quite young. But the people who remember us from back in the dog-ass record days still come out too. So I guess, you come to a Rejects show, you get every walk of life. It's kind of interesting.
How did your work with Valiant Watches get started?
I started DontHateOnHaiti.org two years ago, right after the terrible earthquake. And I just did DIY, I didn't have anybody help me, so I was like, well, screw 'em. I'll buy all these shirts — I owned a printing press for t-shirts, so it cost me nothing after I bought the shirts to actually print them. And so we sold them on our website, DontHateOnHaiti.org, and immediately, my first instinct was to take it on the Warped Tour with me. And we raised about 20 grand in like 20 days. That was like a really significant deal for us.
And after that I did various other little things that I could think of as I've gone — like when I toured with the suits I got some top man, I just spray painted with the "Don't Hate On Haiti" logo, and we made ten grand on it when we auctioned it off after we everyone on Warped tour that year to sign it.
So Valiant Watches came to me when a friend of mine, Jackie, just happened to go to school with Chris and Tracy from Valiant, and they approached me, and they said, 'look, we're trying to start this watch company, and we know your passion for Haiti.' And the good thing about the watches is, you can break them down and build them. And they donate 25 percent of all proceeds to the charity. And being that we don't have our own little watch company I thought it was just a great thing to do.
Why the focus on Haiti?
At the moment that happened in my life, I was just sort of lost as a person. And it kinda shook me one day, that happened. I just woke up one day, turned on the TV, and I was just really humbled by the fact that not only was it such a huge tragedy, and it's continually still a fight for those people, but I just also felt like it went away pretty quick, considering almost half a million people were displaced, and clearly shocked. Whereas in America, we forget very quickly.
So I guess my whole thing is, I know I'm not going to pry raise a million dollars for this charity, but at least I can continually keep awareness up for the fact that these people are going to be afflicted for the 25 to 30 years rebuilding their country.
It all starts with water. Water was the first affliction, water's the first thing you need to establish life, and they still have troubles with irrigation, so, charity water. I just happened to watch Scott Harrison did a Powerpoint presentation in a small house in Venice a couple years ago before charity water really got their notoriety. And all my proceeds and donations go directly to Charity Water, which have a funnel directly down to people of Haiti. And we've already built a couple water wells. And, I don't know, seeing your charity's name on the side of a well, it's kind of a cool thing. When you see all those people standing next to it, it's like, wow, this is a great thing.
You went there?
We're going to go after Christmas, this year. You know, I got invited to grab a shovel and help build, but I feel like that's more of a strict publicity thing. I feel like if I go to go down there, I'd like to do the thing that I know how to do, which is play music and make people sort of find a little bit of serenity in the insanity. I think we're gonna try to play.
So you're interested in bringing together the band and the charity effort?
I feel like I have to use my pedestal… I don't want to make it so incestuous. It's a blessing to be able to raise awareness through the fact that I do have a band. But every time I try to put it on tour, venues want to take a percentage. So it's better online, sort of social media.
What's cool is when the kids come to the show and they have the watch or something, when I see them outside, I stop everything for them, you know what I mean? It's kind of like a little club.
It's a great thing when you can wear an awareness of anything on your wrist. There's an ironic nature to the thing: it's gonna take so much time to actually rebuild Haiti. You kinda got it all on your wrist, get the watch.
How much are you able to identify with your fans?
It's crazy, still meeting those first-time concert goers. How much do I relate to my fans nowadays? It's funny, man, we've been playing this casino/college run, and we'll find some pool tables where we can just hang out. Talk to somebody. In these college towns, it usually creates a bit of a scare when we go out after a show or whatever. But meeting some of these people, sitting around a pool table, these kids that are old enough to get into a bar, they're the kind of people that have grown with us. I dunno, it's funny when you actually meet people that remind you of yourself when you were younger, and you're like, these people listen to me. It's just kinda heartwarming, knowing that these people you play to.
I dunno, nobody's like a Rejects fan. It's really nice to sort of be humbled by your audience. And they're just really cool, and they don't freak out when they meet cha, they just sorta wanna tell you something. Like, the greatest moment I've ever had, as an artist or somebody, was: I was checkin out of a hotel, like last year, and this guy came up to me and he was like, 'Hey, I just want to let you know I had two tickets to the show last night, and it was great.' I was like, oh cool. But he was like, 'I only got to use one.' I was like, oh man, what, sorry, did your date flake on you or whatever?
And he was like, 'No, my brother was sick with cancer. And he held on, and it was all because of the song "Move Along." And he almost made it to the show, but he passed a couple weeks ago. And I wanted to come because we planned on it."
So I was just like, wow.
And he's like, 'I just want to let you know that song you wrote gave him an extra fighting chance, or gave him an extra six months that I got to spend with him.'
And I was like, you know, I'm a good son, I'm a bad man sometimes. But knowing that something I penned in a 20-dollar-a-night hotel in Atlanta might have helped saved some souls out there or helped give people hope, then, I don't know, that's something bigger than I ever expect.
How does Kids In The Street compare to your previous albums?
I think that reputation-wise, and a sort of song approach, it's a totally different bag for us. It's like the first record I wrote where I didn't necessarily have a muse like I've always had in the past. It just sort of made me feel a little more reflection on life. It's a record about a quarter life crisis for a young man. Lyrically, the record sort of bounces in and out of questioning life in your 20s, and realizing who you are at the end of it.
It's the most ambitious thing we've ever done — we worked with Greg Wells, who's done a lot of these really ambitious things that have gotten really great critical acclaim over the last years. But mainly I decided to work with him because of this Mika record — this artist named Mika who I think is really incredible — the sounds on that record were just really well recorded. And I was really sort of into the Greg Wells thing before I even met him. And working with him, it was just a hell of a journey. And Kids In The Street takes ten years of things we've always experimented with and masters it into one record. It's a bold statement for us as a band. And we're really excited that Mika even preformed on what's going to be our next single, it's called "Heartbeat Slowing Down." I think it's collectively the best song this band's written, as a band.
Sometimes when you sit down and write a song, and you're writing the words for it, it's an emotional thing to actually write the words themselves. Writing that song, it took me two days to, really, really… it's about an affair, where we're running through life. It was an interesting little thing. Sort of being that honest with yourself through a song. And it yielded what I think is, yeah, a favorite of our band.
How did collaborating with Nick Wheeler work on this album?
I'm kind of the skeleton maker of the Frankenstein relationship we've had. I'll give Nick just the bare bones on what lyrics there may be, and Nick's kinda the doctor, he can sew it all together. We've been going on these little writing trips since I was a kid, and that's always been how we sort of find our sound. And we haven't really deferred from that for the past three records.
But this journey was more intense. Because every time Nick would suggest a writing trip… it was always perfectly timed. I really needed to get out of wherever I was every time we went on a writing trip.
So there's a lot of that sort of volatility and tension on the record. If you're out in the woods with a guy for two weeks, shit gets weird.
How has finding success been for you?
This girl got a tattoo of the band. So it's this surreal, two dimensional, digital proof that you always get. It's surreal. Everything's sort of like a dream I guess. I guess when you wake up, your feet sort of jump back to the ground a little bit. I see my family's reaction to stuff sometimes, and that sort of makes me giggle.
I don't know how I feel about anything right now, man. I've been doing the same thing for ten years, and this is the only thing I know. So if anything changed I would just be completely devastated.
You learn to live traveling. Like, when you have guests on the bus or you have someone ride with you for a couple days — like, my mother, she came with me to Europe for a week for the first time. She'd never been on the road. And just, sort of, watching her get beat down after nine days, and the fact that I'm like a squirrel, I never run out of energy, and she's just like dying. I'm like, wow, I guess this life is something you gotta be cut for.
I'm completely in this dream world, touring. And when you have success partner up with it, it makes it even more surreal. Right now I'm in a hotel room, in Lake Charleston, Louisiana, waiting for a hurricane to pass. Two days ago I was in fucking Tahoe. It's just, like, sort of just a dream world. And when you have anything that's successful, coupled with the lifestyle to make it even more surreal — I don't know.
What's it like in Louisana?
Windy. Cloudy. Rainy. And the casino is full. It's funny how people are making this such a massive deal, when it's probably the weakest hurricane to land in America in a long time.
I spent the last the last six years in Destin, and I went through Ivan, and it's so funny because that was a category four and that wasn't really on TV at all, but ever since Katrina, they've really hyped it up. It's a big advertising day when hurricanes land.
It's all show I guess, really not punch.
Speaking of places you've lived, when was the last time you went back to Oklahoma?
You know, small towns get really small. It's weird, you grow up, and when you're from a small town, a lot of people just stay. So when you leave and come back it's surreal. But I love it every time I go, because my family's beautiful. And we're like the 3rd oldest family there, but we come from the mutt side. We're the dust bowl children, that great grandfather staked a claim in the land run. We're not the rockstars of the town. I have a very colorful family.
It was my great-grandfather's father. My great-great grandfather. They did the land run and everything. It's crazy. On my grandfather's property there's this sandstone, that's etched in there, it says the date and shit, that's sort of bizarre.
Have you always sworn so much?
I'm a sailor, unfortunately. I've been on the bus for 10 years, and taken time to record records in-between, so you kinda get a mouth on ya. Every time we play Oklahoma though, I clean it up for mom. She comes to my act every time.
How did you come to play the music you do?
I was always drawn to the bass because I could sing while I played it. And I felt like that sort of, you can find the beauty of a song by playing it on a bass and singing it. A good song, you can get completely naked and it still looks good. That's what the Rejects are about: we strive to make every song that we write completely stand alone on a guitar.
When I was 12 years old in a garage learning Beatles songs, I didn't think why I loved the bass, I just knew it felt right. I think every musician just finds their calling, either that or they're just freaks that can play anything. But I find that the freaks that can play anything don't really… it sucks. I always say the world is music and as Magellan, once you discover a place, it's gone, it's on the map. So writing a song, you only have so much of the world to discover, and people that know everything about every instrument, they've been around the world so many times they don't know where the fuck they're going.
The music business thing, it's always changed. It's always gonna change. The way shit's now, it's reverted back to the 1960s way of gold-record singles. It's not about the records anymore, it's about the songs. That's the way it was in the 50s. History repeats itself. Shit, I'm sure we'll have a second grunge. I'm seeing a lot of kids rocking flannels and the fucking thermal underneath the shorts.
The 90s are comin' back hardcore. It's really great, turning on the radio and hearing a bunch of 90s songs. I just think it's great that's the reverted music now — remember when the 80s were cool? Now the 90s are cool. As far as the return, on Sirius radio and stuff. It's really kinda funny.
The way music's gone in the last 5 years has been really remarkable. If you're talking mainstream music, then that's a totally different conversation. Mainstream music has totally gone the way of the Euro, dance. It's totally heavy dance.
Off-the-beaten-path music, there's so much of it, it's awesome. Now you have to have the treasure map, which is just sort of, knowing about it. Now it seems like you have to find the music you love. Which is, I think, very cool.
Jesus, pop radio changes every two years. When people start getting irritated that everything is four-on-the-floor, I think that'll happen. There's going to have to be a serious epidemic of broken necks, or strained necks in order to change the dance beat.
Are there any changes going on in rock music?
Rock and roll is never gonna go away. Music has always been cyclical, like a kaleidoscope, never showing you the same thing twice. The wheel keeps on spinnin. I don't think music's ever going to fall on its ass. People need it. It's the language of life. It's the breath of your ears. I'm not really too concerned about it. I think the artists have more power nowadays than they ever have, so it's only going in the right direction.
The foundation of music has always been: people want to listen to it. So as long as people want to listen to it, we'll always play it.
We continued to push ourselves for ten years, and that's what's kept us on the chain for ten years. So I'm not too concerned. I feel that every musical discovery that happens is only a tool for your kit, and if you use it wisely and you use it to make a song that is genius, because that's the only thing that can ever break through nowadays. The music that's perfectly executed, that's the cream nowadays. That's the way it's going.
We have more control over where our music goes, what our music is. More importantly, how the music works. Music works harder now than the people that promote it, that's a beautiful thing.
What are things like for you currently?
We're on a nationwide tour with Boys Like Girls for the next two months, and we'll be supporting our new single "Heartbeat Slowing Down," off our new record "Kids In The Street," blah blah blah.
We toured with Boys Like GIrls way back in the day. It's cool, we brought out Eve 6 on this little fair run, that was like surreal, because I listened to them when we were going to shows we weren't playing. Like, college radio, 14, Eve 6 comes on. And then they're opening for us ten years later. It's definitely a pinch-me scenario. If you'd have told me when I was 13 that a band that had a song on the radio that I liked would be playing before us ten years of 15 years after that, I wouldn't believe that. I'd call bullshit.
Why process it, man? Nothing to process. Just keep going. I'll think about it when I'm old and I'm wearing my band t-shirts and I finally hang up my platinum records.
How was touring with Blink 182?
It made me feel young. They've been doing it for 20, it was their 20 year tour. Seeing them as a band, how they operate, it was kinda cool knowing that wfter 10 years, we're still all great friends. We're still chummy. So it made me feel really good about that. It made me realize we still do it cause we love to. It made me love it even more.
They had their children out there. It was kinda a full time job just keeping up with their family. I learned something from it: never to procreate. It was a really good lesson for me: never have a family, if you want to play rock and roll. You can have your extended family, but, babies and rock and roll just give me the chills.
I eat banana peels every day just to be sterile. I'm just kidding. It's a tribal thing.
Don't ask me for expert insight. I'm just a kid who writes songs inside a hotel room. There is my depth. And personally, we all figure it out.